Case Study – Ije Amaechi – Mark’s journey of self-confidence in singing and playing the piano

I’ve been teaching Mark, a year 10 student, at an Education Support Centre (ESC/ Pupil Referral Unit, PRU) in Hertfordshire since October 2018. Mark had already been having weekly general music lessons with the music teacher at the ESC, but my additional lessons have focused on singing songs he chooses and learning to play chords on the piano.

Mark has always been able to sing in front of me from when we started off with the song ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran. However, whenever someone else would enter the room, or if his teacher for his next lesson (who he has a good rapport with) would come in a few minutes early asking to hear him play, he would refuse and start playing the first few notes of chopsticks on the piano (which he learnt elsewhere). His teacher would also pick up the guitar, play a few chords and they would have banter about his level of playing.

Mark is great at listening to the tips I give him for his vocals and always tries his best with singing the songs, really putting his heart into it, but finds the piano somewhat challenging to focus on and stick with. He can spend a couple of minutes practising new chords and repeating an exercise until he reverts to playing the beginning of ‘Chopsticks’, perhaps because he knows it so well and can play it fast. He also likes to show his teacher almost every week even though we ask him to play something new he’s learnt or to sing a song.

In November, I gave him the lyrics to ‘Say Something’, a song he told me he really wanted to sing. We soon realised how much it suited his voice and helped him to project more and pass the boundary of singing quietly, worried if someone were going to come in. We talked about dynamics and how he can build the song up by using his voice to help portray the meaning and he really started to give it his all. He still, however, was not ready to sing it to his teacher.

One week, Mark was finding it particularly difficult to focus and didn’t want to play or sing, so I suggested he make up his own tune on the piano. He started playing around for a few minutes and at the end pressed lots of keys simultaneously which created a startling, dark sound. I jumped and laughed, which he found hilarious, so he spent the next ten minutes making up a tune and went on a little experimental journey, hooking you in with the notes, getting quieter and quieter and then suddenly, all the keys at once, very loudly. It was quite amusing – I could see he was really enjoying the freedom of playing what he wanted and became immersed in this. His teacher soon came in, much to Mark’s delight, for now he could do the same thing to shock him. “Sir, I’ve got something to show you…”, “Ah great Mark, I’d love to hear it”. Sir sits down, probably expecting to hear ‘Perfect’ or ‘Say Something’ from previous weeks, but Mark plays his new experimental improvisatory piece, sliding up and down the piano, with varying dynamics and black and white keys. He of course ends with the fade to sudden loud notes and we all laugh.

In December, at the end of the lesson, Mark’s teacher asked him to sing again and by this time, Mark had been singing ‘Say Something’ for a few weeks, so was more comfortable with it. I played the piano for him and not only did he sing the first verse, but he sang the whole song, with repeated choruses at the end, even projecting his voice. It was amazing to see him perform to his teacher and feel able to sing out the same way he had been doing in the lessons and after so many weeks of encouragement to show his teacher.

Recently, Mark has shown me country songs on YouTube his mum plays in the house. He sings along quietly to the original, staring at the screen, as if the song holds a string of memories for him. I noticed that when he shows me drum and bass music or hip-hop, he turns the volume right up, but when he played ‘Turn the lights down’ by Lock Turner (country), he turned it down to speaking level. “Oh, you can turn it up more!”, I said, to which he replied “No, it’s embarrassing”. I guess he was again worried someone would hear that he liked this kind of music which isn’t perceived as “cool” by his peers, despite it suiting his voice wonderfully. I’d like to help him feel able to sing these kinds of songs he likes properly, as I can see that they mean something to him, and as a singer, I know those are the songs that feel best to sing. I hope to make some progress on this with him, which I may do by showing him some of the piano chords to the song to bring a different element to it. But for now, perhaps it’s enough to have the space to share these songs with someone else and to enjoy listening and singing along quietly.

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